Miami-Dade prosecutors on Tuesday cleared two federal air marshals who shot and killed a mentally ill man on a jetway at Miami International Airport.
The report issued by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office concluded that the air marshals were justified in shooting Rigoberto Alpizar, who, according to witnesses, mentioned a bomb before running off Orlando, Fla.-bound American Airlines Flight 924, clutching a backpack to his chest.
When the marshals chased Alpizar, 44, off the plane and onto a jetway, he told them he had a bomb and approached them, ignoring their orders to drop to the ground, according to the report.
Even when one of the marshals fired his gun at him, Alpizar kept approaching them, forcing both marshals to shoot and kill him, prosecutors said. According to the report, one marshal fired three times and the other one six times. It was not clear how many bullets hit Alpizar.
"The shooting death of Mr. Alpizar, while tragic, is legally justified in light of the surrounding circumstances presented to the air marshals," the report said. "It should be noted that both air marshals demonstrated remarkable restraint in dealing with Mr. Alpizar."
Federal Air Marshals Service spokesman David Adams said the agency was pleased with the report's conclusions.
"We will continue to focus every day on preventing the threat of terrorism and protecting the traveling public," Adams said.
Paul Calli, attorney for the marshals, whose names were not released, said he was "relieved at the findings," but declined further comment because he said he had not had a chance to thoroughly read the report.
On Dec. 7, the day of the shooting, Alpizar and his wife, Anne Buechner, were returning to their Maitland, Fla. home after doing missionary work in Ecuador and vacationing in Peru, the report said. Buechner told investigators that Alpizar began acting strangely during their trip. At one point, after the couple traveled by train from Cuzco, Peru to Machu Picchu, Alpizar suddenly returned to Cuzco by train without telling his wife or anyone, she said.
Buechner also told investigators that Alpizar was taking lithium carbonate for his bipolar disorder, but he had not had an episode since an initial episode more than a decade ago. He did not take his full prescription while traveling, she told investigators.
Buechner was not at home Tuesday evening and could not be reached for comment.
Passengers also said they saw Alpizar fidgeting and acting nervous before boarding the flight and that his wife had to reassure him. Buechner and other witnesses also said that when Alpizar bolted from his seat, Buechner ran after him yelling "He's sick."
Several witness statements in the report also said Alpizar was reaching into the backpack as the marshals confronted him. Witnesses interviewed also differed on whether they heard Alpizar use the word "bomb."
But the report concluded that the air marshals had to act quickly, regardless of whether Alpizar actually had a bomb, whether the marshals could assume airport security had cleared him or whether they heard Buechner say he was ill.
"In a post-September 11th and Madrid bombing world, the air marshals were faced with a man on an American Airlines flight clutching a backpack on his chest, claiming to have a bomb and threatening to detonate it while heading back toward the aircraft," the report said. "Under these circumstances, there simply is no room for delay for the purposes of conducting the type of investigation that hindsight offers."
(The Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
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Federal officials say Rigoberto Alpizar made the threat in the jetway, after running up the plane's aisle from his seat at the back of the jetliner.
Officials told ABC an Egyptian man was stopped at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport a week ago with a pair of shoes that tested positive for an explosive substance.
The father of Rigoberto Alpizar said his 44-year-old son had lived in the United States for 20 years, become a U.S. citizen and married an American woman.
Several mental health experts said law enforcement officers can use other tactics for identifying and dealing with people who are mentally ill - but they need to be trained.